Encounters in the Park: An Exhibition on Yosemite at the Yale University Art Gallery
The year is 1871, and the “Bone Wars” are underway. Entering the heated competition to unearth dinosaur bones and make the next great paleontological discovery, seven men prepare to depart for the great American West. The photograph documenting their departure shows them dressed as desperados touting rifles and explorer’s hats. They know their adventure will be carefully covered by Harper’s magazine, intent on broadcasting any findings from a “scientific expedition.” Professor Othniel Charles “O.C.” Marsh leads the expedition. Famous for his rivalry with paleontologist Edward Cope, Marsh would later become the first federal paleontologist, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and a household name. The military escort for the trip will be General George Custer, and their guide will be the famed entertainer William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The rest of the group is comprised of Yale undergraduate students setting out on the Yale Exploring Expedition of 1871.
At the time, the United States was experiencing a burgeoning interest in the wilderness and unexplored regions of the West, and this newfound intrigue coincided with the early development of natural sciences in the country. In 1847, Yale University established the Sheffield Scientific School with the first two professorships in science, those of agricultural and practical chemistry, the latter of which was held by Benjamin Silliman, Jr., the namesake for one of Yale’s current residential colleges. For Yale, this event marked the modest start of active research and education in the natural sciences. The field’s progress, however, quickly accelerated with the establishment of a natural history museum to house and exhibit findings from expeditions like the O.C. Marsh venture of 1871, which went as far as the Yosemite Valley.
The idea of establishing a natural history museum at Yale originated in an 1856 speech given by Professor James Dwight Dana of Yale, who argued that the United States needed “An American University.” Dana had at that point established the classification system of mineralogy still used today and was committed to the thought that a genuine American University would require the study of natural science. Accordingly, in 1866, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History was established with a gift of $150,000 from George Peabody, a relative of O.C. Marsh. Around the time of its founding a series of events were opening the American West to the scientific mind. The discoveries of natural science were capturing public and academic imaginations, Darwin’s recent publication The Origin of Species was shaking the scientific community, and the rapid construction of railroads enabled the movement of paleontologists and their fossils. These converging influences encouraged the Peabody’s founding, and today the museum celebrates its 150th anniversary.
The year 2016 marks another significant anniversary in the advancement of natural science and the appreciation of the West, namely the centennial of America’s National Park Service. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a bill that created the National Park Service, tasked to manage previously established national parks and those of the future. Entrusted with these parks, agency’s mission was to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Pamela Franks, Acting Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, introduced the shared anniversary of these two watershed events as the inspiration for Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley. The exhibition, currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, strives to capture the sentiments behind the early exploration and later preservation of the American West. In doing so, the exhibition recreates a view of Yosemite through a single vision developed from both art and science. Installed on the fourth floor of the art gallery, the exhibit opened on October 7th and will run through the last day of the year.
For Mark D. Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and organizer of the exhibition, a central motivator in the show’s design was to express the feelings of the West and the evocative experience seeing of Yosemite National Park. He aimed, in short, for “the sensation of being there.” Hence, the exhibition features the expansive vistas of Yosemite captured in photographs, lithographs, and paintings such as exhibition’s preeminent work Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail by Albert Bierstadt. The curators of the exhibition, however, wanted to broaden how visitors think about Yosemite, and hence the exhibit became a fruitful collaboration between the Peabody museum and the Yale University Art Gallery. Integrated and juxtaposed with the pieces of visual art appear categorized botanical specimens, granite pieces from El Capitan, stereoscopic card displays, and hand-woven baskets by the Miwok people—all items brought from the Peabody collections. The curators also drew from Beinecke Library for the watercolors of Yosemite painted by James Madison Alden in 1859. And the exhibit includes various original photographs of early naturalists in Yosemite, those who in the words of Curator Mitchell represented the belief that “our relationship to nature is our humanity.”
In this respect, the exhibition represents “A Conversation across University Collections,” the subtitle for the show’s opening lecture. But the exhibition conducts an intersectional conversation in other ways as well. Indeed, the curators examine a number of interchanges between art and science. One central example of this is the close interaction of art and science during the early exploration of the Yosemite Valley. Both fields were finding a new frontier the West and were trying to assimilate what they discovered. Confronted with Yosemite, science asked how the distinct valley was created, while art pondered how the remarkable scenery could be best represented. Both fields brooded over the stunning uniqueness of the Yosemite Valley. Furthermore, here was a time and place where art served in the advancement of scientific ideas, while scientific ideas explained and analyzed the natural beauty revealed through art. Specifically, chemistry enabled the portable photography that captured the early scenes of Yosemite, while photographic evidence became the convincing source of factual evidence for natural science.
Observing this vibrant interaction became the central theme for the curators of this exhibition. Curator Mitchell describes how art and science were united single vision in the creation of the exhibition, just as these two fields aligned during early exploration. Peabody Director David K. Shelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, describes how this conversation over Yosemite served to connect the Yale institutions and construct “a synergy of art and science.”
For Olivia Armandroff ’17, a student researcher to the project, “Yosemite lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach that embraces a range of primary materials, not just from the Yale University Art Gallery’s collections but also scientific records from the Peabody and…printed material [from the Beniecke].” Armandroff describes how these various materials reflect a diversity of experience with the Valley. Of those whose works of art or testimonies are exhibited, she comments “each found inspiration in the natural environment in unique ways.”
A bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln meets visitors entering the exhibition. Standing Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorializes the president in a contemplative but forceful moment. In 1864, as the Union Army was turning the tide of the Civil War, Lincoln approved congressional legislation to preserve Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove. The statue seems to reflect the profoundly prescient moment when, despite the fog of war, Lincoln acted on the need to preserve Yosemite’s inspiring landscape for future times of peace. The statue proves a fitting opening for the exhibition in that Lincoln looked beyond the country’s turmoil and saw the need to preserve the transcendent landscape.
At the other end of the gallery stands another representation of that-greater-than-self. A symbol of natural grandeur and wonder, an 11-foot, radial core sample removed from a 1,300-year-old Redwood tree is mounted into the far wall. All of the events marked on the circles of the Redwood’s trunk, starting from the American Revolution, are clustered along the outer rim. If the Lincoln statue at one end suggests a profound commitment to preserve nature for successive generations of man, the core from the redwood offers the counterbalance in nature’s own vastness and expansive history, which humbles human events and histories.
Along the wall to the side of Lincoln are the lithographic works of Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit, who sold reproduced images of Yosemite Valley. To quote the text of the curators, “Currier and Ives’s artists offered a generalized idea of Yosemite, complete with mountains, stylized waterfalls, wandering wildlife, and peaceful Native American encampments scaled for the parlor.” Currier and Ives fashioned an idealized Yosemite into the imagination of a widespread public audience. Their work renders Yosemite picturesque and inviting. Any impulse to domesticate Yosemite, however, becomes challenged by the photographs of Carleton Watkins and those of Ansel Adams across the room. To Curator Mitchell, Watkins set “the defining visual paradigms of views.” He established the trend of artists climbing up to the peaks in search of the most inspiring panoramas. The naturalist and environmental spokesman John Muir deemed Yosemite “the incomparable valley,” and Adams and Watkins reflect this sentiment in their breathtaking photographs.
Many of the objects in the exhibit offer an interactive element. The stereo cards invite visitors to try creating the illusion of three-dimensionality. The granite samples from the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan are available for touch, and the various botanical objects invite close observation. According to Ryan Hill, the Nolan Curator of Education and Educational Affairs, the introduction of items from the Peabody makes the exhibition more intimate and brings into focus the important context of history and science to the visual pieces. For Hill, this interdisciplinary approach will invite both staff and visitors to look at the works differently.
All of these elements that thread through the exhibition—the scientific and artistic, the intimate and majestic, and the need to look again and again—are united in the exhibit’s defining work: Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail from 1873. The artist of the work Albert Bierstadt is perhaps more often associated with this valley than any other painter. Indeed, the curators began structuring the exhibit from this single work as the quintessential essence of their vision. The exhibition space revolves around the Bierstadt. At all distances in the gallery, the Bierstadt offers what the curators see as the “enormity and close experience of the landscape.” Bierstadt weaves the themes of Yosemite into a whole. He stands committed to an almost scientific realism, while producing an artistic masterpiece of light and composition. Science and art align. His representation of the tremendous and sublime view of the cliff El Capitan contrasts and complements the grounded human figures gazing outward from the mountain trail. The painting leaves nature on its own magnificent terms while at the same time asserting humanity as a welcome guest—free to view the expanse of Yosemite.